Report from Sri Lanka, Pt. 1

DJ Mitchell, an American, has been volunteering with Sarvodaya, a Sri Lanka organization working for peace and to end their civil war. He is currently there, and sends this report.

“I’m in Sri Lanka again, helping on a peace initiative, and trying to stay current on the latest conditions. The situation in the East had become complicated, and I wanted to understand it better by seeing it firsthand. I rode with Sarvodaya’s Executive Director, my friend Vinya, as far as Anuradhapura, up in the dry zone in the central part of Sri Lanka. Along the way, we marveled at how things had changed. The last time I’d been here was 1999. At that time, checkpoints with alert soldiers and automatic weapons abounded. The hospital had been filled with wounded soldiers, and I’d been denied entrance to visit a friend. The city had seemed hushed.”

” Now the city bustled, and new businesses were everywhere. Homes were under construction. At the few checkpoints I saw, police lazed in the shade of their shelters. The cease-fire had been good for Anuradhapura.

I spent the night at the Sarvodaya District Center, chatting with my friend Winsor, the District Coordinator, and listening to the monkeys feeding in the trees outside.

In the morning Winsor and I left for Polonnaruwa, towward the East. The narrow road wound through jungle and across rivers. “At night you can see elephants here,” Winsor told me more than once. I had little doubt of that; there were piles of dung on the road that were far too big for cows. Then we turned a corner and there on the side of the road, feeding from a huge pile of garbage, was a herd of a dozen or so fully grown wild elephants.

As we neared Polonnaruwa, the scenery changed. Instead of elephants, we saw army bases: Signal Corps, Infantry, Artillery… My heart jumped a little when I saw the artillery, recalling my visit to Padaviya some years ago, listening to the shelling all night long.

From Polonnaruwa, I got a ride to Batticaloa, a small city in the Tamil-speaking East. Batti sits on an island in the middle of a large lagoon. It is both very charming and strategically important, and has seen a great deal of violence during the war.
The last time I’d been to Batti was in 1998. The city had been under siege then; the army held the town, and the main road was open during daylight hours; the LTTE held the countryside. There had been ten checkpoints to clear, and I’d had to show my passport at each one. There had also been detours in the road, heavily fortified emplacements, and guns everywhere.

This trip, there was still a strong troop presence along the road, but the fortified emplacements were gone. There were four checkpoints, and two of them waved us through without stopping. No one asked for my passport. The bridge into Batti, which last time had been guarded by a concrete pillbox equipped with heavy machine guns, was now free of obstruction.

No one told the Sarvodaya District Center I was coming. Worse, the men who drove me spoke Sinhala and a little English, the staff in Batti spoke Tamil and a little Sinhala, and I spoke only a little Sinhala myself. What followed was a bizarre mixture of three languages as we tried to sort out who I was and what I was doing there. Eventually, they called Sarvodaya Headquarters in Moratuwa, where a woman I know well asked me, “Who am I speaking to?” I told her, and we both laughed. She explained my mission to the staff, and I was quickly whisked off on the back of a motorcycle through the streets of Batti.

Batticaloa too was booming. The sleepy little town that had been occupied by the army was now alive and full of traffic. Motorcycles, cars, busses, and trucks all competed for space with bicycles and buffalo carts. The formerly clean air was now thick with exhaust fumes. Shops were full of goods and open for business. There were even two Internet cafes—a far cry from the ubiquitous wireless networks of Colombo, but progress nonetheless. Peace, it seemed, had been good to Batti, too.

Peace, of course, is a misnomer. Sri Lanka has reaped the benefits of a four-year cease fire, but this is a far cry from peace. The LTTE still assassinates its enemies at will, and a schism with the so-called “Karuna Faction” is still being fought in the East. The army, for its part, sponsors paramilitary groups that continue attacks on LTTE officials and sympathizers. Civilians are all too often caught in the crossfire.
The cease fire is a vast improvement over the full-scale war that killed 65,000 people since 1983, two thirds of them civilians. But the cease-fire is not peace, and there is still a great deal of work to do.”

[tags] Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya[/tags]

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